A different breed of heroes

A different breed of heroes

George Clooney leads a tribute to an overlooked band of men who saved mankind’s greatest artistic treasures from the Nazis in ‘The Monuments Men’

By Carl Kozlowski 02/05/2014

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There have been countless war movies throughout the history of cinema, most falling either into the camp of being jingoistic, pro-battle propaganda like “The Longest Day” and “The Green Berets,” or tragic portraits of war’s effects on mankind such as “Platoon,” which cause audiences to wonder if there is any real point to war.   

Yet, in “The Monuments Men,” star-director-producer-co-writer George Clooney has come up with an all-too-rare fresh angle on war. As an art professor named Frank Stokes who is recruited by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to organize a team of American art experts to recapture classic European art that was stolen by the Nazis, Clooney brings the spirit of his “Oceans 11” heist-film series to tell the story of how this group of men risked their lives in order to save humanity’s greatest artistic achievements from destruction and Nazi capture during World War II. 

The movie opens with Stokes informing Roosevelt about how dire the stakes are, with the Nazis having looted potentially millions of works of art from the private collections of Jews as well as national art treasures. The artworks — which so far had been stolen from Paris, Amsterdam and Milan — have been taken to form the key pieces of one of Hitler’s dream projects: The Fuhrer Museum, which he hopes will amass the greatest collection of art in the world, by any means necessary.

The Monuments Men ( a name bestowed by the US Army) — now including a Frenchman and a German teenage refugee who becomes an invaluable  translator — split up and fan out across Europe in search of clues to the art’s whereabouts. But as they find more and more of the lost treasures, as well as the entire German gold-reserve supply, the Nazis get tougher, creating the Nero Doctrine in which SS troops are welcome to set fire to any art treasures they feel are in danger of slipping out of Hitler’s hands. 

With works like Michelangelo’s “Madonna and Child” and the altarpiece from the Cathedral at Ghent at stake, Clooney and his team (leading a stellar cast that includes Matt Damon, Bill Murray and Cate Blanchett as a Nazi resistance spy whose trust Damon has to win) find themselves not only up against the Nazis but against the confusion and indifference of some American officers who don’t respect their efforts. But as Clooney stands up to those ignorant attitudes and tries to buck up his men’s spirits, he movingly educates the audience as well on how tragic it would be if the world lost its greatest cultural achievements.

Such profoundly noble motivations underscore Clooney’s own ambitions with this film, which eschews the silly yet fun, manic style of Nicolas Cage’s “National Treasure” films in favor of a more thoughtful but still entertaining story that has a deeper, more philosophical consideration of the art being saved than Cage’s romps to save historical icons ever had. 

If there is any criticism against the film, it’s that “Monuments Men” often feels episodic rather than having a tightly wound screenplay. While nearly every scene works, they sometimes seem to be disjointed from each other — such as when John Goodman and his French colleague (played by Jean Dujardin of “The Artist”) get lost while in a Jeep together and suddenly wind up ambushed by Nazis.
The assault comes out of nowhere and is too quickly staged to work up much tension.  The same problem occurs in at least a couple of other scenes, when a more full-bore approach to action would have been more satisfying. Clooney and his team still pull it off, however, with the men’s interactions fun to watch and the nobility of their mission likely to inspire viewers to develop a renewed appreciation of art as well. 

This unabashedly patriotic, old-fashioned movie should finally convince those who harp about Clooney and Damon being un-American liberals to put a sock in it. As director, co-writer (with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov), producer and star, Clooney has his stamp all over this film, which stands as a monument to a team of forgotten men who saved our sense of humanity.  

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